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Ok, I lied. Well, technically, I didn’t lie per se. Sure, there’s nothing in this blog about Tim Cook, Apple or twitter. But, I didn’t lie. I just played by the wide open and loose rules of today’s publishers. See, what I did, was I link-baited you. You saw that salacious headline, “13 reasons Tim Cook Just Bought Twitter” and you clicked. If I had been selling ad-impressions on my site, I’d have just made a fortune.

Admittedly, you’re irritated. You expected to find an article outlining why Apple decided to buy twitter, instead, 1.5 paragraphs later, you’re still reading my lecture. You should be irritated.

Tonight, I was a bit irritated too, so, I got a bit cheeky on twitter and started generating semi on topic/semi off topic headlines that were completely made up. For example: “The 36 flavors of ice cream that are just like Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp.” — Adam Kmiec (@adamkmiec) February 20, 2014

The number of people who tweeted me back asking for the link or thinking I’d forgotten the link was staggering. We have been conditioned to look for headlines/tweets like this…so we can click on them.

When the news first broke about Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, I rolled my eyes and I debated avoiding social media for the next few days. But, I didn’t Being plugged in to social is part of the job and the responsibility that comes from leading an organization’s social marketing efforts. Why did I want avoid? Simple, I’ve seen this news cycle before. The announcement comes out and we end up with hundreds of posts that seem an inch away from the Tyson Zone. They all follow the same formula:

Leonardo DiCaprio toasts wealth in a still from the film The Wolf of Wall Street, captioned: "Whatsapp Link-Bait Headlines? NO SWEAT!"

Leonardo DiCaprio masters the messaging in director Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
(Photo © Paramount Pictures)

The + X (a number) + Y (a noun) + Z (the actual news) + A (preposition) + (simple phrase)

For example The 18 Ways Facebook’s Acquisition of WhatsApp Is a game changer. At this point, I’m half sure publishers have simply written a script that generates these headlines. After all if Len Kendall can do it as a side project, it stands to reason a large publisher could do it too.

So, yes, I got a bit cheeky, had some fun, but also learned a lot. For example, I’m not the only marketer who’s self-aware enough to realize that:

We have become conditioned to expect headlines like this
We know it’s a problem

This approach to “reporting” the news could very well be called link baiting. An interesting headline rarely is paid off by the actual content contained in the article. The headline is salacious, which of course gets you to click. This bothers me. It’s always bothered me. But, now that I also have the responsibility of our Walgreens enterprise content strategy, it don’t just irritate me, it really concerns me. Let me break this down…at the end of the day branded content can only live in 3 places:

Our owned real-estate: For example our website or opted-in eMails. In this case, we need to think about how we use a variety of paid and organic approaches to drive people to those locations. Distributed on another platform (e.g. twitter) organically: In this situation, we’d be recognizing that you might not want to leave the experience you’re currently in, but you still want content from us.

On another publisher’s site: Because buzzwords are king, let’s call this content “native.” If it’s native content, in essence we’re paying to have our content embedded on another publisher’s site. The upside here is rather than trying to drive someone from where they already are to my site, I can “engage” them where they already are.

Bucket 1 has been around since the early 90s. Be it web-rings (yes I said web-rings) or the earliest form of display ads (remember the 120×90?) companies have been “buying” ads across the web to drive people to their sites.

Bucket 2 isn’t quite new, but, it’s not quite a mature space. Brands are still figuring out how to balance the value of building a base of followers on someone else’s platform, for the purposes of marketing to them. Yes, I said marketing. I didn’t say engaging, which, let’s be honest, is simply a more polite way of saying, marketing.

Overlapping logos of Facebook and WhatsApp

Match made in buzzdom? Facebook buys WhatsApp in a deal worth $19 billion in cash and stock.

Bucket 3, though, well that’s an interesting one. You can call it “native” or any other name, but it’s still an ad. I won’t get into the merits of native ads vs. traditional display ads, here. It’s a subject I’ll tackle at a later date. With native ads the publisher is selling traffic. They’re ultimately claiming, hey, we get X millions of eyeballs to our site, thus your reach is some % of X. Simple enough, right? After all, that’s really not too different than bucket 1. We’ve been buying ad inventory on CPM models for years. In those CPM models, an advertiser chooses to advertise on that publisher’s site, because they reach X millions of eyeballs.

The big inherent difference though between bucket 1 and bucket 3 is that bucket 1 created and built during a time when portals (e.g. Yahoo, MSN) were the starting point and people browsed for content. There was a certain assumed intent. In bucket 3, when you’re essentially advertising inside the stream, the intent is debatable. Publishers are selling reach in the form of impressions, which come from clicks. Well, if I were a publisher, I’d publish outrageous headlines, just like the one that brought you here. It’s smart economics after all. As the publisher, I craft the slightly misleading, slightly on topic headline, you click, I claim your traffic, I then aggregate all the people who clicked on the link and I tell advertisers, see look how much traffic we have.

But, doesn’t it beg the question, is it really quality traffic? And that’s the rub. I applaud Facebook for taking steps to change the newsfeed algorithm so that link-baiting sites, like Upworthy were de-prioritized. Shouldn’t the headline match the actual content on the page? Jack Marshall at DigiDay recently covered this topic, in superb fashion.

We have become conditioned to look for links that fit the: The + X (a number) + Y (a noun) + Z (the actual news) + A (preposition) + (simple phrase) formula. We can’t help but click. And doing that, allows the problem to continue.

As someone focusing on an enterprise content strategy for a beloved, large and progressive organization, I’m concerned and I’m pausing. I’m tending to scrutinize the numbers publishers are providing. I have to ask myself, how much of that traffic is actually legit and how much of it was manufactured through link-baiting headlines. The difference for some marketers could millions of dollars wasted on empty clicks and impressions.

But, see, that’s something a brand cares about. That’s something the advertiser would care about. There’s little incentive for publishers to change and the associations that should be providing leadership, like the IAB, don’t even have brand-side representation. That’s quite a conundrum and I have a feeling it’s going to change. As content strategies become ever more important for organizations, there will be many others who are asking the same questions I am. I hope that has a ripple effect and we see other platforms like Twitter start to de-prioritize content that’s clearly link-bait.

Portrait of the article's author, Adam Kmiec, wearing a gray t-shirt that says "Made in Brooklyn."

Portrait of the author: Adam Kmiec

How can we expect our leadership to us seriously, when we, as an industry, perpetuate such debatably unscrupulous behavior? That’s not a sexy headline, but it’s something you should think about.

Adam Kmiec is the Senior Director, Social Media and Content, for Walgreens. Prior to that he ran global digital strategy for the Campbell Soup Company. Read more of his ramblings on “All Things Media” at TheKmiecs.com.

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by Brandon Gutman
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Brandon is an expert connector and seasoned business development professional. As Principal of Brand Approved, he's led the advisory to become the bridge between brand marketers and best of breed service providers that are reshaping the industry.

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